Washington’s legal marijuana law is actually two experiments in one

Colorado might have been the first state to implement a recreational marijuana law, but Washington’s version may be the more-radical reform.

As it establishes a new regulatory system for legal pot, Washington is also simultaneously setting up a system by which to measure it. In doing so, the state created two experiments, writes Philip Wallach, a Brookings Institution fellow in governance studies: One is in drug policy; the other is in how to measure its impact.

“Washington’s knowledge experiment creates the conditions to make marijuana regulation wonkish, the province of careful analysts rather than angry firebrands,” he writes in a new paper on the law. As with another such report on Colorado’s effort a few weeks ago, the paper is focused not on the structure, success or failure of legalization, but rather on the implementation of the law enacting it.

From the start, Wallach writes, Washington’s law has been rooted in policy. The writers of the initiative, which voters approved in 2012, were led by ACLU of Washington Drug Policy Director Alison Holcomb and the group was “motivated by opposition to America’s failed war on drugs, which they believed had delivered few benefits while exacting huge costs in the form of squandered law-enforcement resources and unnecessary incarcerations.”

In their cost-benefit analysis, the policy had failed. Inspired by that positioning, Washington’s regulatory framework seeks to document and oversee all aspects of the legal industry. Producers, processors and sellers must be licensed, which includes receiving criminal background checks and subjecting their business plans to state review, Wallach writes.

The law establishes three research programs of note: exploring the law’s impact on youth, prevention and treatment and comparing its costs and benefits. That focus on research has the potential to help settle some policy debates that, until now, have had little evidence to rely on. Of course, data cannot provide all the answers, but something is better than nothing, Wallach writes. In the end, there are two experiments being tested and either could succeed or fail without the other:

In principle, Washington’s marijuana initiative may be deemed a political success even if its public-knowledge initiative fails. The public and the media might simply be unwilling to await or attend to what researchers learn, or researchers may be unable to produce results that are clear enough to be helpful, or social scientists may prove (not for the first time) maladroit at communicating what they learn. But the reverse could also happen. Even if legalization is deemed a social or political failure, Washington’s knowledge initiative may develop tools and processes that could help other states to succeed—and not just with drug-policy reform.

Read more:

Washington’s Marijuana Legalization Grows Knowledge, Not Just Pot

Niraj Chokshi reports for GovBeat, The Post's state and local policy blog.
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